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Reflections

Your Country Needs You! An Art Review of the Literal Security Theatre Show on Nairobi’s Streets

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I have been thinking about the old man who spoke to me on my way to work. Why me? Why did he follow and ‘perform’ for me? Who asked him to? For what purpose? When I told my friend about it, he didn’t hesitate: “That’s a spy. That’s his job. He was paid a hundred or two hundred shillings to follow you to your destination.”

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Your Country Needs You! An Art Review of the Literal Security Theatre Show on Nairobi’s Streets
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It is said that knowledge is a curse, but my knowledge of the dramatic arts was the last thing I ever expected to manifest this truth, out of all my skills. For those of us Kenyans who know how to read the mise-en-scene that is downtown Nairobi, the last few weeks preceding and during French president Emmanuel Macron’s visit have been interesting to say the least. But as a film director and scriptwriter, and I am sad to say I have witnessed a lot of terrible acting – a true mutilation of the theatrical arts upon the streets of the city. Still, I am not sure the practitioners of this travesty were aware of the fact that they were, to the trained eye, in terrible need of dramatic correction. The theatre show they produced was untitled, but I want to call it ‘These Are Not Your Streets – Part1’ and it has been showing on the street, right beside you, if you had the eyes to see.

Let me explain, but let’s make it interesting; What do the following three Kenyans have in common? A tall ‘msee wa kupima weight’ sitting silently and openly in the daytime along the Kenyatta Avenue pavement, his head lowered, all his attention on his phone as people pass him by. A sensibly dressed woman sitting on a tree stump on a Saturday, around lunch hour, chewing through a large roasted maize cob slowly and making no attempt to seek the shade of a nearby tree with a bench underneath. A sweet vendor out late, about eight thirty in the night, leaning silently against a lamppost where the shade hides the upper part of his body and only the sweets in the small bucket hang between his legs in the light. Well, can you guess?

For one, they are all doing things counter-intuitive to the nature of the jobs they are supposed to be doing. The msee wa kupima weight is not calling out to customers or nervously looking out for city council. Why? The woman on the tree stump is pouring sweat, and wiping it with a handkerchief, but not moving into the shade? Not even taking off her backpack? Why? And the sweet vendor, what’s up with that? That’s downright suspicious. At that time no one buys sweets from bus windows. At that time, even if a sweet vendor was leaning there, his little bucket would not be arranged for daytime. If I was directing that scene in a film and I saw that extra, I would yell ‘Cut!’ and send him back to the costume department for a makeover.

I’ll tell you what else they all have in common; they are all plainclothes police. The city has been on mini-lockdown these last few weeks. The oblivious and the privileged have probably not even noticed. But every young man from Eastlands, every street urchin, every hawker, every tout and bodaboda rider, every sex worker will tell you it has been perilous. It has been necessary to be able to read the stranger on the street and decide on the quality of their acting. If you failed to see all the bad acting happening around you, you might have found yourself in some terrible trouble. Ask the two matatu touts I saw at OTC, handcuffed by a plainclothes police officer who was dressed like an underground rapper, bling and torn jeans and all. At what point did they realize that he was not a rapper? When it was too late, evidently. Ask the young man I saw on Wednesday morning sitting near the Tom Mboya statue in downtown Nairobi, two bad actors standing over him, glowering down at his face as one searched his pockets. As I was walking away, I think I heard a slap. At what point, as they walked towards him, did he realise they were not going to a nearby office but that their office was the street, and he was their unfortunate business?

If the last few weeks have taught me anything, it is that everyone needs some knowledge of acting. At least, everyone needs to be able to differentiate the good from the bad. You see, even the real wajango –the ones who grab you and press a pistol in your back demanding your money and phone– even they usually need to ‘act’ a little in order to get close enough before they show their true colours. I have a feeling that that slight bit of theatre education might not only make us safer on our streets, but also that it will change the entertainment industry for the better. I don’t even blame the poor security officers, most of them must have been trying out theatrical roles for the first time ever. However, I request the government to invest a little more in the theatrical arts, if just because it seems to be such a critical skill for national security. God forbid those who want to harm Kenyans learn good acting first, right?

Now as a professional, and in general, I don’t trust bad acting. Even a good friend will sometimes fail the good acting test and often you discover that they were trying to lie or withhold some information in these cases, such as why they need to borrow money. But now comes the twist in the tale… I was careful all through the week to keep a safe distance from any of the bad actors, and lord have mercy, they poured the whole force into this theatre production without auditioning them. There were some terrible examples indeed. I saw a sweet vendor even ignore a mother and child. Sweet vendors love selling to children. I think the biggest factor of the bad acting that stood out was the simple ignorance of the real life of the character whose costume they had chosen to wear.

I didn’t think it through very well though. I should have remembered the other constant I have observed in most bad actors I have directed – they are often unaware that their acting is bad and are utterly convinced that they are the next Lupita. I should have seen it from their point of view. They must have sat and wondered, but how does he not fall for our marvellous acting? So instead of avoiding suspicion, I think I must have aroused it instead. But thankfully, they finally found a decent actor to send my way. On Tuesday morning, as I walked up the hill up State House Road to go to Pawa254, a short bespectacled old man, bald with white hair, was walking slowly up ahead. As I came up the road, he watched me wipe the sweat off my face and smoothly took the opportunity to start a conversation.

Kuna joto leo, eh? Kwanza kama uko na njaa ndio unaisikia vizuri.” (It’s hot today, eh? Especially if you are hungry, that’s when you really feel the heat).

I liked how smooth his improvised entry was and I am not a bad actor myself, so I smiled and decided to walk with him and chat a little about life.

Nikifika ninapoenda kwanza nitakunywa maji baridi ndio nitafute kachai,” I replied. (When I get to where I’m going, I’ll have to take some cold water and then look for tea).

Eh, yaani siku hizi kuna njaa. Ukiona jua imewaka hivi, jua kuna njaa.’ (Eh, these days there’s hunger. When you see the sun blazing like this, there’s hunger).

Kweli mzee, watu wamesota sana. Sasa mimi naingia hivi.’ (That’s true, old man. Now, I’m going to turn here).

At this point I was about to turn right into State House Crescent and he was still walking ahead of me. He made his first mistake then, he walked on as if he was still going up State House Road before turning again to follow me. I looked in his face and saw him take the mistake with the grace of a seasoned performer… I smiled. How did the police find such a great actor? I could use such talent for my next film. But now I was curious.

Kumbe ulikuwa unakuja huku kama mimi?’ (Oh, so you were coming to this place, like me?)

Eeeh, ninataka kununua sigara kwa hiyo duka ya mluhya.’ (Eeeh, I want to buy a cigarette at this kiosk run by the Luhya guy).

Again he was impressive, he had done some homework and knew that there is a small tuck shop by the gate of Pawa254 run by a relaxed old man called Stevo. I smiled. He didn’t seem rehearsed at all – a natural actor, but not on your screen. We walked together, discussing the economy, and the heat. When we got to the gate, I bought him a chapati at the kibanda opposite the shop. I told him I was now going to work and wished him well. And I walked away wondering if I had been going about the situation completely the wrong way. It seems, the better plan is to pretend you can’t see bad acting. Perhaps I simply should not be thinking like a scriptwriter or film director when I am on the street. Perhaps it is I who should be perfecting my acting on the street, playing the complicated role of ‘man-who-does-not-see-bad-acting’ as I walk among the throng. So for the last few days as Macron’s visit has wound up, I have attempted to relax a little more around the bad acting all around town. I must admit though, it has not been easy.

Truthfully, sometimes they did not bother to act at all. Some days – specifically from Thursday through to Saturday – it was like a badly directed dystopian horror film. I guess they were worried that there might be some trouble before and during the busiest dates of the UNEA summit. It was well into the very dystopian territory of ‘physical-presence-as-threat’ and violence hung heavy above every street like rain clouds, waiting for an excuse to pour down. I remember walking up Wabera Street from Mama Ngina Street and a burly gentleman following behind me for a few minutes, his nose barely inches from the back of my neck. Then he suddenly sped on, perhaps to follow other prey. As he passed me, I remember noticing a small can clutched tightly in his hand, his finger on the top part of it. My guess, it was a can of mace. And going by the expression on the man’s face, (alikuwa amebonda like he had safari ants in his underwear) I sense he was disappointed that I hadn’t given him any excuse to use it.

There is a shop window at Kipande house facing the street at which we sometimes stop to dance as we come from Pawa254. Yes we do; what can I say, we are after all artists – and art is a way of life, not a nine-to-five occupation. I was walking ahead of everyone else as we came up to it that evening and then I saw them — a large group of bad actors standing around the spot, at least twelve, pretending to be regular people heading home. Except, they were all drifting too close to your side, bumping you on the shoulder, or in some cases, turning right round to walk by your side and listen to your conversation. It was not a time to be oblivious. I know bad acting, but I also know when people are not acting anymore. There was no more pretence of theatre. We hurried on, past the dancing spot, and on our way. We didn’t dance that day.

We got to our different bus stages without incident, but not before one tall gentleman had suddenly turned to block my friend’s path and take a deep long sniff of his face right in the middle of Moi Avenue, trying to smell him for traces of ganja. Now surely, that is well within the realm of sexual harassment. If I were directing that film, I would have fired that actor immediately for breach of contract. That was not bad acting anymore, just very bad behaviour. It should not be condoned, in any sort of theatre produced for public consumption.

I have been thinking about the whole exercise in a new light, wondering if all over the city, young people like me were also feeling the overbearing weight of the security performance. Feeling restricted to just given spaces, unwelcome in some. Feeling as though they were not really the audience of it, because why would the cast of a play meant for me seem so unfriendly to me? As if I was not the intended audience of the show, but some charlatan roaming about their stage. I thought this was my city too. You can see why I gave their theatre production the title that I did. I have been wondering if better acting on their part would have made a difference to how their show made me feel. It is a long shot, but I have decided to volunteer some free theatrical advice.

To all you first time actors and actresses who debuted in the country’s biggest theatre production this year, congratulations and kudos. Welcome to the entertainment industry and good luck. I have two quick pieces of advice for you after the show. Your performances were affected by two major first-time actor mistakes. The first and most common mistake many of you made was being over-serious. There is no reason why a sweet vendor I have never met would be glaring at me angrily instead of trying to sell me sweets. Some of you, especially the men, already have faces that are ‘angry by default’. For such people, deliberately trying to look serious moves your performance quickly from the genre of drama to the genre of horror. Watch out for that next time.

The next and most common mistake you made, though I am much more lenient about this one, was a very common acting mistake – unintended smiling. I mostly observed this among the actresses – why, there was one who smiled right at me even as she attempted to steal a photo of my face on her phone, perhaps amused by her own undercover actions. Good acting needs one to not let their emotions give them away. I am glad though, I much preferred the smiling ladies to the wasee-wa-kubonda. Which young man doesn’t like a pretty actress giving them some attention? Your next production is bound to be much better if you remember these two tips.

I have also been thinking about the old man who spoke to me on my way to work. Why me? Why did he follow and ‘perform’ for me? Who asked him to? For what purpose? I wonder if he does it for a living, this subtle and not-much-known form of theatre acting. When I told my friend Dulizmo about it, he didn’t hesitate;

‘Huyo ni mbleina. Hiyo ndiyo wera yake. Huyo alijengwa ng’at ama rwabe akutrace mpaka penye unaingia.’ (That’s a spy. That’s his job. He was paid a hundred or two hundred shillings to follow you to your destination.)

I am not surprised to hear that opinion of the old man but I am much more interested in the nature of his work. If he does it regularly, then he is a professional actor operating in the theatre of real life. Old man, if they show you this article, come and look for me at the place you followed me to. We didn’t get the chance to talk about your acting career and I really think your best days are not yet behind you. You have what it takes to be a great film or theatre actor. And you owe me a chapatti.

I reiterate; I don’t blame the huge cast of ‘These Are Not Your Streets – Part1’ entirely for their bad acting. Again, experience with Kenyan TV and theatrical productions has taught me that many times, the reason the acting is bad is because someone tampered with the production and/or rehearsal budget. You can’t blame an actor for something like bad costuming, or an inappropriate prop. Someone with a good eye for theatre is supposed to help them with such things. Perhaps I have discovered a unique opportunity for actors and theatre practitioners like myself. It seems that the security profession is in need of good theatre production skills much more than they might admit. And lord knows, paying work for artists can be hard to come by. I am glad to see that they put up such a concerted effort to perform their show and some of them, such as the mzee who spoke to me, certainly deserve at least a Kalasha award.

And to all other young film and theatre actors all over the country; it turns out, your country needs you!

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Alexander Ikawah is a writer and filmmaker living and working in Nairobi, Kenya. He was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Short Story prize in 2013.

Reflections

Life Upcountry in a Time of Coronavirus

It has been barely two weeks since the first case of coronavirus was detected in Kenya yet the ramifications of the pandemic are already being painfully felt within my community.

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Life Upcountry in a Time of Coronavirus
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It’s ridiculous I know, but I have been reduced to hoping that the lady I met at an agrovet in Nyahururu town last week is right after all, that above all other peoples of the world, God loves Kenyans the most. She made this extraordinary statement when I hesitated to shake hands with her, citing coronavirus fears and pointing to the critical situation prevailing in Italy, which had gone into lockdown in an attempt to contain the pandemic. “We shall be ok, God will make sure of that because he loves us very much”. More than the Italians? Much more!

A few days later, a retired veterinary officer of my acquaintance came to have a look at Dolly-the-calf; the girl had weeping eyes and I was a bit worried. Upon arrival, the vet found me on the phone and I was able to avoid shaking his proffered hand by vaguely waving at him instead. He was clearly miffed and took off in the direction of the cow pen before I had got off the phone. When the vet was done with Dolly, I explained to him that I had not meant to be rude but that avoiding shaking hands and keeping at a distance from each other was the recommended thing to do but he pooh-poohed me and said that those were problems of Nairobi people. Here in mashinani we were perfectly safe from the virus, he said.

The following morning, as I was driving off to run an errand in the next township, I was waved down by a woman who looked vaguely familiar to me and, thinking she wanted I lift, I stopped. The woman came straight at me, grabbed my hand, shook it vigorously and proclaimed, “Praise the Lord! We will not die! The Lord is with us!” What could I say?

I live on the edge of a small township, about 30 kilometres from Nyahururu town, which nevertheless boasts a Level 3 health centre complete with a maternity ward and a functioning ambulance. The township is also host to many churches of various denominations; I have counted ten, including three of the main established churches, within less than a square mile. Sunday mornings used to be a competing cacophony of hallelujahs and hello-hellos as the pastors in their tin-shack churches tested their microphones before blaring out their summons and silencing birdsong. But a quiet word with the sub-chief seems to have worked and the noise has largely abated, with the loudspeakers back inside the churches and the volume significantly reduced. This is a largely church-going community and the arrival of the coronavirus in Kenya had not changed that in any significant way. When I enquired with the pastor of my church about the measures he was taking in the face of the COVID-19 crisis, he informed me that handwashing facilities would be placed outside the three entrances to the church and that the service would be shortened. Otherwise, life was continuing as usual.

Well, news of Nairobians beating a hasty retreat to their homes in the Kenyan countryside – or at least to the homes of their parents and relatives – have got me worried that the virus is already lurking among us, shortly to manifest itself to devastating effect. And so, being a mild hypochondriac, and convinced that the slight tightening in my chest does not augur well, I have decided to commune with my God from the relative safety of my house and compound.

Born and bred in the city, I came to live here a few years ago armed with a copy of John Seymour’s The Complete Book of Self-Sufficiency, a highly romanticised view of country life, no practical skills and absolutely no knowledge of farming. But I have endured and could remain behind my gate for a couple of months, living off my vegetable patch, my maize reserve, Daisy’s milk and the eggs from my chickens. The rains have been unseasonably generous and the locusts flew high up above our heads a couple of weeks, ago, headed south, sparing us that particular scourge. How the market traders will fare is what I’m wondering though. Last Saturday morning county officials did the rounds of the township and asked the market traders, who flow in from the surrounding countryside and neighbouring townships twice weekly, to pack up their wares and leave.

Those who sell second-hand clothes can always store them until the Wednesday and Saturday market days are reinstated – whenever that will be – but what will the vegetable sellers do with their stock? And how will the traders get by if they cannot trade? I buy avocados from Mama Wangari who recently introduced me to her last-born daughter, a charming girl who, against the odds, had done extremely well in secondary school and was hoping to enter university to study pure mathematics. Her mother is the family’s sole breadwinner and sending Wangari off to college was always going to be a challenge. Given the uncertainties linked to the coronavirus pandemic, the odds of Wangari sitting in a lecture hall any time soon have just diminished.

The shops remain open for the time being but business is bound to suffer without the custom of those people who come into the township to trade and buy goods on the weekly market days. Bars have already taken a direct hit and those who like their tipple will have to take it in the comfort of their homes. The police did the rounds of the local watering holes last Sunday night, supervising the ordering of last rounds and, on the stroke of midnight, all bars in the township were closed until further notice.

Soap and water dispensers have been placed outside most shops and the grocery store that my city nephew refers to as The Mall – on account of its having two tight aisles and a large assortment of juices – is well stocked in toilet paper, although I doubt its sudden disappearance would cause as much distress here as it would in the city; maigoya (plectranthus barbatus leaves) are in plenty along the hedges. Prices of goods have already gone up, however; a kilo of sugar that I bought at SH95 last week is now trading at Sh105, a two-kilogramme packet of a popular brand of maize meal that was going for Sh110 is now selling at Sh140 and my butcher tells me that the number of customers crossing his threshold has diminished considerably in the last week.

“Andũ aingĩ gũkũ matihotaga kwĩigira mũthithũ, marĩaga iria mathũkũma mũthenya ũcio”, he says (Many people have no savings, they consume what they earn daily). Five hours of casual work will earn you Sh250, Sh300 if you’re lucky. And if you’re lucky to find the work.

Esther Wa Tu-Twins called me early this week, enquired after my health and assured me that she and her children were equally fine. We talked about the rain the night before, and how the patch of maize that she had recently planted was doing. Then she came to the point of her call and informed me that her store of maize meal was finished and she couldn’t find any work. Esther and her family of five – four children and a younger brother in her care – are among the 4,000 families that were resettled by the government at the Makutano Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camp in Laikipia West following the 2007-2008 post-election violence, a region where the rains are uncertain and the hunger season long most years. Esther’s crop of maize and beans is still some months to harvest and the coronavirus pandemic has only come to compound an already serious problem for her family.

The police are also back on the roads, white masks over their mouths, ensuring that matatus are respecting the directive to carry not more than eight passengers and booking recalcitrant crews. It had been a relief for many, not least the boda boda riders, when the police were ordered off the roads in an attempt to put a halt to the rampant bribe-taking. (A pair had recently been discovered hiding in the bushes along a dirt road from which they would suddenly emerge at the approach of a boda boda, hoping to cow the rider into surrendering a bribe. Their business was short-lived, however; our boda boda community is no longer prepared to put up with that nonsense). Matatu fares have gone up though; a trip into Nyahururu town, a distance of just under 30km, will now set you back Sh200, a 100 per cent increase. And it is expected that shortages of diesel and petrol are soon to be experienced in my neck of the woods; a friend called me with advice that I should tank up and limit my movements to the absolutely necessary. I have no plans to leave my compound any time soon, however, so that quarter-tank remaining is sufficient for any emergency that might cause me to venture beyond my gate.

It has been barely two weeks since the first case of coronavirus was detected in Kenya yet the ramifications of the pandemic are already being painfully felt within my community. May the prayers of the woman I met in Nyahururu be heard.

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Reflections

Open Letter to President Uhuru Kenyatta

Mr. President, you need to get your act together for this. This is our last big ask from you. It’s also your last scene on the big stage. God knows your performance has not lived up to its billing—and that’s being polite about it. It is your chance for public redemption. It may not matter to you, but it matters to us— to the thousands, maybe millions of lives at stake.

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Open Letter to President Uhuru Kenyatta
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Re: COVID-19 in Kenya

Your Excellency,

COVID-19 is here. Fatal errors have been made. People from Italy managed to travel to western Kenya when Italy was already the global epicentre of the pandemic. One of them was infected. This is unacceptable.

Last Sunday, the government suspended international flights and imposed mandatory quarantine. Passengers did not find quarantine plans in place. They were held up for hours, and then allowed to go home and report back the following day. The following day, they were shuttled from place to place for hours. Yet, the Government had given assurance that a contingency plan for every scenario was in place. This is not true. It was the usual public relations, then shambles. Unfortunately, we are accustomed to this.

Last week, in only your second address on the pandemic, you launched an Internet service. This was a serious error of judgment on your part, and distasteful opportunism on the part of Google. People are worried about food, and you call the nation to attention to launch balloons? Many Kenyans have accused you of being a prisoner of your privileged upbringing. Yet you continue to reinforce that perception. This was yet another one of many let them eat cake moment. It is one too many. Learn from it.

I do not know what your analysts and advisors are telling you but here is the low-down I think you need to have.

If the pandemic progresses to Europe level, we are sitting ducks.

The data we are observing shows that availability of intensive care (i.e ICU) beds is the most critical survival factor. Germany has 1.5 times more infections than France, 30,000 and 20,000 respectively as I write, but France has seven times (860) the fatalities in Germany (130). But it is also the case that Germany has 29 ICU beds per 100,000 people, three times France with 11.6 beds per 100,000 people, that is a 40/100 ratio. What this means is, for 100 people needing ICU beds at the same time, Germany will save most of them, but France could lose all 60 who fail to get ICU beds. In every country, deaths have risen sharply once intensive care capacity is exhausted. The UK delayed its emergency response. With only 6650 confirmed cases, a fifth of Germany’s, they already have two and a half times the number of deaths. But the UK has only 6.6 ICU beds per 100,000 people, less than a quarter of Germany’s capacity.

I gather that we have a total national ICU capacity of 200 beds. That works out to 0.4 beds per 100,000 people, or one bed for every 250,000 people. The global critical illness rate is at 4%. To exhaust our 200 ICU beds at this rate requires only 5000 infections. But many of these beds are already occupied; therefore the actual capacity that will be available is much less. We cannot afford 1,000 infections let alone 5,000.

Allow me to turn to the economy. As Kenyans watch other, mostly European governments roll out economic mitigation and social protection measures, they are wondering when their government will come to the rescue.

We could not be more ill-prepared.

You will no doubt recall that as Finance Minister, you rolled out an Economic Stimulus Package (ESP) to aid recovery from the 2007 global financial crisis and 2007/8 post-election violence shocks. You may also recall that the budget deficit at the time was running at below 4% of GDP, which left plenty of headroom to borrow and spend without risking macroeconomic stability. You will probably also be aware of a fiscal prudence rule of thumb, a deficit “red line” if you like, of 5 – 6 percent of GDP that should not be crossed for too long. You will certainly know that your government has been running a deficit in the order of 7-8 percent of GDP for six years now.

What this means then, is that we do not have the fiscal space for a borrow-and-spend fiscal stimulus. This year, your government has revised domestic borrowing upwards by more than Sh200b from a target of Sh300b at the start of the financial year, to the latest figure of Sh514b. The going just got infinitely tougher. Tax revenue performance which has been in decline throughout your tenure, is about to go in free fall. The deficit will rise regardless.

Ten days ago, I expressed the opinion that fiscal or monetary economic stimulus—what we call demand management instruments in economics— are not the appropriate response and argued instead for a “lifeline fund” to protect jobs. Several countries including UK, Denmark and the Netherlands have since adopted this approach.

What do I mean by “lifeline fund?” Let me use the simplest of examples — a hair salon or barber shop. Hair grooming is the very opposite of social distancing— and it can certainly wait. But thousands of people depend on it for their daily bread (ugali and githeri more like it). Most live day to day. How are they surviving?

The lifeline fund is first and foremost, a safety net for workers like these whose sectors are most badly affected. This is the government’s responsibility just as it provides relief to drought and natural disaster victims. These people, particularly those in the urban informal sector, have nowhere to turn.

Secondly, the lifeline fund aims to keep businesses, especially those that are providing essential goods and services open instead of closing because of low business. We want to avoid shortages that could encourage hoarding, heighten social stress, and drive up prices. Third, the more businesses we keep alive, the faster the recovery will be.

For people in Nairobi’s crowded informal settlements and elsewhere, who do not know where their next meal will come from, the language of social distance and on-line working comes across as a cruel joke. We already have volatile powder keg of gross inequality and social exclusion, and as I already remarked, you personally have reputation for elitist insensitivity. If people get hungry, the soldiers you love to turn to will not help you. Let us not tempt fate.

I have estimated in an op-ed published today on the TheElephant.info that a lifeline fund in the order of 0.5 – 1% of GDP or Sh50-100b would be sufficient to save the situation. But having already argued that it is not prudent to borrow-and-spend, I am obliged to offer suggestions on how else this might be funded. I see two options.

The first is budget reallocation within the existing deficit by (a) drastic cutback on development projects and (b) mothballing non-essential functions thereby freeing up some non-wage recurrent budget. Certainly, monies budgeted for international travel; workshops and public events can be redeployed immediately. This will require political resolve and execution discipline, the lack of which has been the bane of your government. Time and again, austerity plans are announced, but not followed through. You do not have that luxury anymore. You can no longer kick the can and hope that we will muddle along until it becomes someone else’s problem. Mr. President, your luck has finally run out. If you do not impose financial discipline, you are looking at a financial meltdown in a few months, if not sooner. That will be your legacy.

The second is external finance. The IMF has stated it can avail $57b quickly to low income and emerging markets. If it was shared pro-rata between low and middle countries based on GDP, our share would be in the order of Sh18b ($180m), significant but inadequate in the context of the revenue shock referred to earlier. The Prime Minister of Ethiopia has appealed to the G-20 to advance Africa $150b in emergency funds and to write off debts. I am of the view that African leaders should unite around a moratoriam on debt repayment to official creditors (i.e. multilateral and bilateral lenders). New money even if it could be made available, which I doubt, couldn’t come fast enough, and all sorts of paper work would have to be prepared. The same applies to debt write-offs.

A debt service moratorium on the other hand is equivalent to budget support with money we already have. It is a case of a bird in hand being worth two in the bush. Moreover, on this, it is we the debtors who have the leverage because we can’t pay. Won’t pay is an option.

Our foreign debt service budget to official creditors for the coming financial year is in the order of Sh220b. I propose you reach out to Prime Minister Abiy and work together to champion this alternative.

The next question is how would the lifeline be delivered. The western countries are offering partial salary subsidies, up to 80 percent in UK to companies that keep workers on payroll. I think we should do it differently, for two reasons. First, I need not belabour that the government is broke. Simply put, they are rich, and we are poor. Second, and to my mind more importantly, it will be very difficult to target grants efficiently and fairly in our predominantly informal economy. If money is free, demand will overwhelm supply, and if truth be told, the corruption opportunities are beyond measure.

For these reasons, I propose that the lifeline fund be in the form of a very soft loan with long grace period (6 – 12 months) and reasonable tenure (3 – 5 years). The amount should be a fixed sum per employee and disbursed monthly over a fixed term. Should be entirely linked to the number of employees to the loans should be made available to both workers (as check-off loans) and businesses (business loans). To illustrate, working with a figure of Sh30,000 per worker per month for four months, a restaurant with 10 workers would be entitled to borrow Sh1.2 million. If shared equally between the business and workers, and is interest-free over five years, the business would repay Sh10,000, and the workers Sh500 a month each once the crisis is over. The screening of eligible businesses and actual nitty-gritty of loan administration should be left to banks.

In conclusion Mr. President, allow me proffer what I think are your leadership imperatives:

  1. Broaden your leadership team by establishing a National Covid-19 Response Task Force that includes the other arms of government (Judiciary, Legislature, and Council of Governors) as well as private sector, private healthcare providers, professionals and other leaders in society, with you as Chair. The task force should meet at least twice a week, daily if necessary and update the public on a weekly basis. May I propose you personally take charge of this by way of a weekly press conference.
  2. Establish an independent scientific advisory panel, along the lines of the UKs Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) to advice you and the National Response Task Force. You need doers (the taskforce) and thinkers (the advisory panel). What we don’t need is provincial administration enforcers donning fatigues and issuing edicts like they have done since colonial times. If we don’t adapt, we will die.
  3. Task the health authorities to mount an aggressive testing effort of high exposed people and clusters (airline and international hotel staff, tourism centres e.g Malindi and Diani etc) to establish the extent, if any, of local transmission. This is imperative because many urban Kenyans have travelled back to rural homes, and they, as well as the Government, needs to know whether they and their families are at risk so that the appropriate response can be mounted.
  4. Task the Treasury, Central Bank and the Kenya Bankers Association to set up a Lifeline Fund along the lines proposed. Task the cabinet to craft an austerity plan within the next seven days with a target of identifying (a) development projects that will be frozen and (b) non-essential functions that can be mothballed with immediate effect.
  5. In addition to the lifeline fund, it may become necessary to provide a social safety net at the community level in the near future. In this regard, may I propose that Ward Level response teams comprising of political (MCA), county and relevant government officials (ward administrators, chiefs, social workers) and community leaders be established, and tasked the responsibility of identifying vulnerable households that may need assistance, if and when that time comes.

Mr. President, you need to get your act together for this. This is our last big ask from you. It’s also your last scene on the big stage. God knows your performance has not lived up to its billing—and that’s being polite about it. It is your chance for public redemption. It many not matter to you, but it matters to us— to the thousands, maybe millions of lives at stake. Stop listening to your buddies, sycophants and frontmen for commercial interests. You will not get away with throwing up your hands and asking the public what they expect you to do.

The race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor wealth to men of understanding, nor favour to men of skill; but time and chance happens to them all. For surely no man knows his time. Like fish caught in a cruel net or birds trapped in a snare, so men are ensared in an evil time than suddenly falls upon them. (Ecclesiastes 9:11-12)

Godspeed

Most respectfully,

David Ndii DPhil(OXON)

Nairobi, 25 March 2020

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Reflections

Let Go of the Reins Generation Uhuru, We’re Tired of Waiting

There is a looming generational change and it will not be defined by the rules that the Uhuru generation demands that the millennials live by. Generation Uhuru has a choice: either to give up the reins of power in the same way they themselves demanded and got them, progressively and for each other, or they can watch the world they built burn.

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Let Go of the Reins Generation Uhuru, We're Tired of Waiting
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“Ok, Generation Uhuru!” We are tired of waiting; we are tired of you insisting that you can still do this.

The current economic, pandemic and social mess we are in is an indictment of the Uhuru generation. In many ways, the current holders of the political and economic, and therefore social power have not delivered on their inherent promise as the generation to pursue the independence project to battle disease, poverty and ignorance.

We are in the midst of a pandemic.

To be fair to them, no one could have predicted just how much the world would change in the decades following independence. The very essence of society is shifting faster than the structures within can adapt—as it always has—and there are so many ideas in the public sphere but not one stands out.

Passion, and opportunity, marked a similar growth point in the Uhuru generation’s 20s and 30s. That generation grew up in a radically optimistic world, where the traumas of the Second World War and the liberation struggle that their parents were forced to participate in—either directly or indirectly—had led them to want to build a better world for their children, even as they themselves were trying to figure it out. In that space, the priorities of the preceding generation, acquisition by all means, dimmed as societies moved back into their own internal generational wars.

While our history of the 60s and 70s and 80s might appear grim, because of the assassinations and the many other political and economic blunders, they were, in reality, a time of widespread positive change. To be young then was to experiment with the world, with its TV and global culture, a new world where being black, for example, was a positive thing. Public provision of social goods and services was fairly accessible to all and that service which was not free was dirt cheap. Economic opportunities were in plenty.

But by the 80s, with the Uhuru generation now in their 20s and 30s, and more learned than those that held power at the time, and with the passion of youth, it was time for the start of its claim to determine the course of the country. They watched their counterparts—now closer than ever before—bring down empires. So they demanded more political space, before taking away the throne itself. This generational switch was negotiated between the pre-independence generation of the Mois and Kibakis, and the post-independence generation that started rising through the ranks in the 70s and 80s. Just like the political negotiations of the late ‘50s, men and women in their mid-20s and 30s got high-ranking jobs, the social status that came with them, and the support they needed.

“Generation Uhuru!”

While the post-independence generation was in its infancy, the generation in power was walking the tightrope of trying to keep it together while navigating a new world with a governing structure of sorts. They tried everything, from trying not to choose a side to trying to be on each side’s payroll. While understanding the need to play the global tug of war, they also tried to police the kids who were also experiencing this new world. Google miniskirt and hippie hair bans in 60s and 70s and see how far down a wormhole you will go of the things that they banned. In many African countries, young men with guns got rid of old men, before descending into their own wars, coups and counter-coups.

When they crossed into adulthood and became young parents suddenly aware about how the world works, Generation Uhuru began demanding, and taking over, the tools of power. They took over, for example, religious power by simply speaking directly to the people themselves, without going through the traditional, inherited structures. They did the same with political power, forcing Moi to co-opt them into political power and expand the political space for those who were left out or could not be convinced to join his negotiated reality. To not do so at the time would have been to declare a generational war.

To keep society running, Moi and his age-mates had to give in to the independence generation. They did this while also affirming their belief that the Uhuru generation would mess up; telling them that calling for many political platforms would lead to tribalism and a break-up the country they had built. In the ways in which each generation mythologises its wars with the succeeding ones, it might appear as if all Moi and his cronies did was harass them for being young and radical. But the independence generation liberalised the economy and politics in the ways they thought Kenya should work (and that the new global order demanded), and became rich and powerful while at it. Yes, people died, but in the larger scheme of things, Moi lost the generational war, and it was a good and inevitable thing.

Liberalising the economy and politics helped the independence generation directly, by opening up enough chances for them to get jobs now that they had mounting bills to pay, and to live in a society where they did not need to have gray hair to sit on the boards of government institutions. They had the qualifications because their parents had encouraged them to get the education that they themselves hadn’t received, to thrive in a world where education mattered.

But it was the liberalisation of telecoms—as in the rest of the world—that really did it for Generation Uhuru.

Just as their parents had, the independence generation encouraged its children to go to school so that they could get jobs in this brave new world it had created. Like the generations before, the independence generation forgot that it would need to give up the things it had fought for in order to nurture a generation that would understand what this world now needed. As it aged, its pointed criticisms of everything millennials were doing led it to miss a critical learning curve that would have allowed it to know when it was time to go. It still tried to police everything based on the lessons it had learnt from its predecessor, and to maintain the power structures it had inherited and built upon.

With one foot firmly in one century and the other in a new one, Generation Uhuru failed to recognise its own obsolescence and mortality. Even with their successors —the millennials- popping kids and carving out their own paths and demanding a kinder world, the independence generation joined its global peers in trying to make the millennials feel that what they had done back in the 80s and 90s was enough for the world. That there was enough, for example, for them to continue stealing and holding onto the reins of power. To continue, for example, defining how millennials should determine their own course, or even understand how the world actually works. To insist to them that what was good or bad in 1980 was still good or bad, even when it was evidently stupid.

What the independence generation failed to realise is that while it had arrived at a critical moment where it was still living in the same world as its successors, they were both experiencing two very different existential crises.

In 2010, an aunt of mine called my mother incessantly to tell her I was a devil worshipper because of the memes I shared on Facebook. She lives in the States, which makes the entire thing even more hilarious when I think about it now. But all I had to do then was unfriend her, and she was as good as dead to me. Not emotionally, at least not in the way the independence generation understands the word, but because I could simply go to her profile and unfriend her. It would save me uncomfortable conversations, with me trying to placate my parents’ generation’s sensibilities, even when I didn’t need to. It is for the same reason that I do not talk with them about my atheism, my radical world view, my refusal to vote, my work, my hair, or my life choices . . . all of which appears alien to them. And I don’t need their approval any more. I do not even feel the need, at this point in this story, to assure you that I love them. That goes without saying.

A few months ago, my father asked me to cosign a loan with him. The bank had told him that he was too old to get one, and he needed someone younger, a lot younger (he is in his 70s) to partner with him. He asked this while I was sitting with him together with one of my siblings, and for a second, we both went quiet. I wasn’t sure which question to answer first, because he had actually asked two questions, one of them unspoken. The first was whether I could. I couldn’t. I’ve been listed with a credit reference bureau for years because of my erratic payment of my student loans. I’ve wanted to pay them for years, but the immediacy of doing so has faded over time, because I’ve never used the degree for the obtention of which I had taken the loans; and if the loans were an investment in a better future, then it was an absolute waste of time.

The second question was harder to answer though, because I wanted to navigate his sensibilities about it. It was the question of why a man with a near-perfect credit record stretching back more than five decades could not get a loan by himself. There were many ways to explain this, but I chose the one he would understand best. The refusal of his generation to give up power progressively had mixed things up, as its ideas were coming up against a world that was on a different path. While I only used the example of the 2016 interest rate cap because he would understand it (he is a Kiambu voter; it is the Kiambu MP who sponsored the law), I could have pushed the timeline back by a decade and found a link to that decision, a point in time where his generation, implicitly or complicitly, had built a world where a social safety net like a cap on the interest rate would eventually hurt them. Had he pointed out that it is not his specific generation that is in power today—he was born in the ’40s —my rebuttal would have been simple; it is, because he voted for Uhuru Kenyatta in 2002, and every time since. He consented to what Uhuru Kenyatta’s generation, his younger siblings, would do even before they did it.

2016 would not be the first time our elite class has tried to tame runaway interest on credit to protect their interests. But this time the tables turned on them because, while they had the power to pass the law, they are at the tail end of the working-age population, and it was always going to hurt them first. And then it would become a cycle because the generation that holds power could not pay their employees, who were mostly millennials, and would have to fire them and still try to grow old in a world where their successors were now old enough, qualified enough, and still young and radical enough to do something about it. A similar scenario played out a few years ago when the desire by the Uhuru generation to take care of their parents by giving them money, ruined rural economies in Kenya because old people no longer needed to work and those who were young enough to take on the jobs wanted to do other things.

The refusal of the independence generation to give up the reins of power, or even actually acknowledge that their watch is ended, means that we actually can’t afford, and nor do we have the emotional or physical space to take care of them when they age. And more importantly for them and for us right now, we can’t afford it.

For millennials, the 2010s were a fast-paced journey that will define this next decade in ways we do not yet realise. Now parents to a younger generation looking to us for direction, elder siblings to a Generation Z that is walking out into a broken world, and with an ageing generation of parents that we now realise doesn’t actually know or have the capacity to deal with what we need, there is a glitch in the matrix.

In the last decade and a half, we the millennial generation have built a new world by our sheer numbers and we are constantly aware of what is good or bad for us. While our joining Facebook, for example, was mainly due to the fear of missing out that is probably experienced by every generation, our use of it has made us acutely aware of just how creaky the world the independence generation built actually is. Since they can no longer afford to pay us, because their priorities are not ours, nor their dreams nor language, we are now seeking for direction among ourselves. We are also realising that the words that drove them, such as “development” and “corruption” and even “economy” have a different meaning for us because they are impacting our pockets in real time. And they are words from a different time and context.

One good thing about how nature works is that while it abhors a vacuum, and will fill it to maintain the balance, it does so slowly such that it only makes sense in retrospect. Where we have allowed the independence generation to continue beating the “corruption” drum, for example, our sense of fatigue and individual economic awareness, have blunted the fangs of the war on corruption. It is not our war, because we do not even have the opportunity to join in. Our war is different. And it is one rooted in a context we are slowly understanding; that we are in fact the adults now, and we need to determine which war is ours and go into it without apologies to our parents.

For previous generations identity was still rooted within geographical borders, which could be claimed, fought over, and even cut off from the world. To us, identity is increasingly physically individual, such that we can actually run our entire lives, from the social to the economic, without ever having to breathe the same air with more people than we want to. And for a time, we were made to feel like we were doing this life thing wrong, that we do not read newspapers, that we spend too much time on our phones and laptops (which the independence generation gave us, in many ways) not connecting with actual blood-and-bone humans. But to us, a person in our physical space is no different from someone a world away, and literacy, the ability to read and write, is no longer novel or even attractive. It is part of our language, from love to fights to work to our very existence. We do not need to suffer uncomfortable spaces because we can afford, both economically and socially, to work with each other without actually wanting or needing to meet and shake hands. Even banks, brick-and-mortar businesses that thrived in Kenya under the independence generation, no longer need to actually exist in a physical space. Coronavirus will teach this generation hard lessons that they gleefully ignored.

And geographical borders no longer mean what they once did, because the world they built has made protecting them a dying idea especially with regards to their cultural significance. Not only can you take a virtual tour of practically any place in the world, but you can also learn about where people are thriving without it being a class thing. Anyone can Google whether there is (still) work and racism in the West or the UAE, or we know someone we can trust to do it. You can apply for a passport even while checking whether whatever little money you’ve saved can pay for a flight, all without moving from your bed. These things are no longer novel, they are part of our world, and they are not what is wrong with the world. The independence generation understands, for example, that to switch off the internet in Kenya today is far riskier to their idea of national security than stealing money or jailing and killing people. It would not even be those of us who have been on Twitter for a decade who would form the core of the ensuing revolt, but literally everyone because now everything depends on our ability to be online. The internet might as well be the fifth element at this point.

Many of the decisions the Kenyan elites have made in the last two decades and especially now—BBI included—are simply outdated for the country and trying to steal ideas from their forebears and also learn from the generation they have to hand over power to eventually isn’t working. So they are experimenting, grappling to balance between sticking to their decisions and their waning ability to keep up with young men and women who are on a completely different plane. They are understandably afraid of the fact that millennials are now not only old enough to vote and drink, but they are parents themselves and can actually decide things for themselves with none of the consequences parents threaten their kids with. And millennials are realising that none of what they have been told is true; what they say about tribes is actually about identity, and our generation’s tribes need new names that do not weaponise a history we haven’t lived.

The looming generational change will not be kind, or polite, or even decent. It was once supposed to be a “youth revolt”, a point in time where young Kenyans born after the 80s would rise up and protest. But we are now adults, with bills and kids, so a decision to go out into the streets is existential. Our revolt may not even be physical, because it does not need to happen there for it to matter for the generation. Revolutions are fundamentally about language, and we can speak a language using a single hashtag the same way Generation Uhuru built their revolts around gathering in a common physical space. At the time, the world allowed them not to have to gather in the bushes with guns, as their parents had, because they spoke a language that only they understood. We are at that point in time too, where they have sullied the joys of existing in a common physical space by threatening to kill, maim and jail, and actually doing so. We do not even need to take the risk of working together simply because we exist in the same spaces and speak our own language in so many spaces online, since to know what we are doing online, independently and together, you must be part of the generational in-group.

It is impossible to predict the 2020s, because to imagine what a generation will do when it realises its predecessor/parents are just normal people who don’t know as much as they claim to, is impossible. Will we vote for whoever we decide, and support them with the skills they so generously made sure that we obtained, in such significant ways that the power of money and land the independence generation has been so obsessed with stealing and acquiring will be blunted by the same sheer force of numbers and skills with which we have defined our lives so far. Or will we simply decide to relook at everything we know about business and life, and build our own structures if the independence generation insists on imagining that it has the time to wait and rectify its mistakes.

With millennials, the independence generation needs to know that it is no longer dealing with compliant children or young adults who still need them, or their approval, to exist. It is dealing with fully-fledged adults who are slowly realising they have everything they need to demand their space, and feel a glitch in the matrix so profound that we need to explain what’s happening to each other in a language and on platforms that we understand.

This looming generational change will not even be defined by the rules that Generation Uhuru has demanded the millennials live by because we no longer care much for those rules. We have stopped trying to separate how we live online and how we live offline, because both are part of who we are, and we have grown weary of being shamed for it, and coronavirus has affirmed our point of view. We’ve lived online long enough to see our younger siblings and kids join in, and it is scary to think of any subsequent generation trying to make sense of the world as it is now. This world needs us to claim our space, loudly and unashamedly, and to take it by force if necessary. The independence generation, both the elites and the others, doesn’t know what it’s doing anymore, as it tries to shout across the generational negotiating table in a language only it understands. Millennials are progressively realising that their inheritance is not negotiable, and the independence generation is not ready for what’s coming.

As the current “owners” of nearly all that matters to keep a society together—Generation Uhuru—has a choice, either to give up the reins of power in the same way they themselves demanded and got them, progressively and for each other, or they can watch the world they built burn, as we build city-states by our rules. Negotiating only works if each side gives the other all, or some, of what they want. So far, we have given them time. They have given us stasis and a society that is now dealing with a looming food crisis because of locusts among other things, a global pandemic, a place in time where it is cheaper to die than to be sick, and nothing of value in the future that we are staring at.

Our goal as millennials is to build a kinder world so that our younger siblings and our kids can build a better one. And we have to start from there, looking at everything as it is now, and bringing down anything that is unkind to us and others; because the Uhuru generation forgot the basics of a working society that they learnt from its parents. They wanted to build a new one, only tapping into the old ways when it suited them (such as weaponising ethnicity).

But they inherited the trauma properly, and have since tried to force-feed it—together with the fears such individual and collective traumas carry—to us. And now, as they feel the walls closing in on them, they would rather not ask for help from us but continue shuffling among themselves and those of their parents that are still alive, looking for solutions. What they should be doing is progressively handing over everything they fought for, bought, and stole, to the people who need them now.

We will build them retirement homes they can afford to die in, and for some, better prisons than the ones they inherited and never improved, so that we can focus on the job of bringing this world back to its senses. The alternatives to negotiating this transition are simple, not just in Kenya but the world over. I doubt that the post-World War II generation wants to be known as the generation that inherited a world traumatised by war, racism, pandemic and colonialism, and bequeathed that same inheritance after enjoying one of the most peaceful periods in recorded history.

But what do I know about how the world works? I am a millennial, after all. An eternal child.

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